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Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc.
38 East Market Street, Rhinebeck, New York 12572 USA -  845-876-2626
Vegetarian - Vegan - Animal Rights - Health - Nutrition - Environment

The mission of the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc. is to promote the vegetarian ethic in the Mid-Hudson (New York) region, educate the community and aid anyone in the pursuit of a totally vegetarian (vegan) cruelty-free and healthful lifestyle.

Newsletters - Winter 2005 Issue

B12: The Misunderstood Vitamin
By Jim Van Alstine

Meat-eaters often use the B12 issue to argue against vegetarianism. According to myth, vitamin B12 comes only from animal sources so a vegan diet is not healthfully sustainable. Sometimes even misinformed doctors assume that the sole source of B12 is the digestive tracts of slaughtered animals because B12 is indeed found in relatively high concentrations in the guts of animals.

This finding leads to the further assumption that B12 is an animal byproduct. In truth, B12 is made by bacteria, not by the animal in which the bacteria lives.

B12 is present where the bacteria that produce it live: in the soil, water, animal intestines or any environment that supports the growth of bacteria.

Vegans often pay special attention to vitamin B12 out of fear of becoming deficient in this important nutrient. Thus many vegetarian foods, including meat substitutes, breakfast cereals, and some soymilks are fortified with B12. Another B12 source popular among vegans is nutritional yeast flakes, an inactive yeast with an earthy, cheesy taste.

Why do we need B12?

Vitamin B12 works in conjunction with folic acid and Vitamin B6 to control levels of the amino acid called homocysteine in the blood. Too much homocysteine can increase the risk of stroke or heart disease and can contribute to osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

What happens if we don’t get enough B12? Dr. Michael Greger www.veganmd.com bluntly answers, “…severe irreversible brain damage.” He refers to severe deficiency, but slight deficiency can cause unusual fatigue, faulty digestion, nausea, loss of appetite, and absence of menstruation (amenorrhea).

To supplement or not to supplement?

The human body is capable of storing B12 for long periods, but many vegan doctors and experts on nutrition including Dr. Greger, Jack Norris, George Eisman and Dr. Neil Bernard emphasize the importance of regular B12 intake.

“Human beings need regular, reliable intakes of B12. The evidence is perfectly clear.” Greger said, “You either eat adequate fortified foods or take supplements. There is little disagreement on this among experts of vegan nutrition.”

A few dissenting voices, on the other hand, claim that an un-supplemented vegan diet need not result in a B12 problem. Robert Cohen, the “Not Milk Man” even goes so far as to condemn those who advocate supplementing B12 as having fallen victim to a meat and pharmaceutical industry conspiracy to undermine the vegan ideal. “The message is this: It is unhealthy to be a vegan. It is unhealthy to be a vegetarian. If you are a vegetarian or vegan and do not take artificial supplements produced in factories by pharmaceutical companies, you will not be as healthy as a meat eater,” claims Cohen.

Is B12 vegan?

Since the traditional source of B12 is the digestive tract of animals, how can a vegan supplement B12? According to the Nutraceutical Corporation, makers of VegLife, their B12 source used in their B-Complex supplement comes from a “microbial fermentation of brown rice.” The soymilk called Silk uses a fortified B12 source from a vegetable glucose fermentation process claims the company’s website www.WhiteWave.com .

How do health risks of vegans and meat eaters compare?

At least one major study found that B12 deficiency is common, yet few of those studied complained of symptoms or were diagnosed with B12 deficiency or its more drastic complication, pernicious anemia. Vegans may have an elevated risk of B12 deficiency, but the degree of this risk has yet to be determined.

In fact, what we know about health and veganism is more certain regarding heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure. We know surely that people who eat an abundance of animal products are at higher risk of heart disease, stroke and other diseases affecting the blood vessels including high blood pressure.

Dr. William Castelli, the physician in charge of the largest heart disease study in the United States, the Framingham Heart study, looked at the impact of diet and came out solidly on the side of vegetarians. He wrote, “Vegetarians have the best diet. They have the lowest rates of coronary disease of any group in the country... they have a fraction of our heart attack rate and they have only 40 percent of our cancer rate.”

In a head-to-head comparison of leading diet-related health risks, meat eaters face a 40 percent chance of dying from a cardiovascular disease, while a vegan has a risk of pernicious anemia of maybe one in 10,000, and perhaps a three percent greater risk of iron deficiency than that of meat eaters.

Not much of a race.

Return to Winter 2005 Issue

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